Denver, CO

How the 140-year-old hobby of collecting sports cards transformed into a lucrative, expansive market

Steven Bonifazi

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Boxes of sports cards stack high on a reseller's home desk.(Photo by Steven Bonifazi)

By Steven Bonifazi

(DENVER, Colo.) The reselling of sports cards has erupted over the last year, resulting in a feeding frenzy for the marketplace as more people start jumping on the craze.

A 2019 article from Sports Collectors Daily reports that the hobby of collecting sports cards arose in the 1880s in the era of tobacco cards that featured baseball players. The majority of the cards were distributed with cigarette brands as inserts in cigarette packages while some were issues with additional tobacco products from cigars to scrap tobacco.

Today, the reselling of sports cards has exploded, becoming similar to the likes of the reselling of the famous streetwear clothing brand Supreme. Many people have jumped on the sports card train, buying out stock at retailers, and making it difficult to find cards in stores, from mothers looking for their sons and daughters to local businesses such as Vices, a shoe store located at 2201 Welton St. in Denver that sells high-fad clothing, shoes and now sports cards.

Other websites such as the eCommerce giant eBay and StockX, a live marketplace for exclusive sneakers, streetwear, handbags and watches also have packs of sports cards listed for sale at least twice the retail price point. Currently, basketball is king in the sports card collecting and reselling market regarding prices and overall value, followed by football, soccer and baseball.

ESPN reports that on Monday a Lebron James rookie card sold privately for a record-breaking $5.2 million through PWCC Marketplace, the biggest trading card marketplace around the globe. The card, a 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch Autograph (RPA) parallel, is the most expensive basketball card sold and ties with a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card that sold in January, which set the all-time record for any card.

The card received a 9 grade, with a perfect 10 signature, from Beckett Grading Services, a professional service grading company. The value of cards is generally based on a grading scale from one to ten, on different attributes including centering, corners, edges, and surface, with the specific player on the card mattering significantly.

Ever since the explosion of sports cards, grading times have taken longer due to the high demand.

"I sent a PSA 20 day submission in August of last year and it arrived in April, said Bryce Dalrymple, a sports card collector and seller who co-runs an Instagram account called redzonerippers. "It was supposed to be returned in 2 business days but instead, it was closer to 180."

On April 23, cold air blew through the Mile High City. Dalrymple heads to a local Wal-Mart at 4:28 a.m. to camp out in line for packs of Panini select, NFL trading cards and Panini prism, NBA trading cards.

Dalrymple was dressed in black jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt, a black down jacket and a brown beanie. He was on the phone with Sonny Flores, a local sports card flipper, who only sells sealed packs online.

The two of them met one early morning at a Wal-Mart in a gutted card section.

“There are five people here, we’re not going to get anything," Flores said as he drives past the Target located at 7930 Northfield Blvd. in Denver. "There’s gotta be employees at target now knowing people are camping."

Flores decides to take his chances at a Walmart 15 minutes North of Denver in Commerce City. It is 5:09 a.m.

Due to high demand and the surge in sports card sales, Target implemented a policy allowing three items per purchase/day on all Pokémon, magic the gathering and sports cards. Now some Targets will start allowing only one item to be purchased as of April 30.

Dalrymple is also part of a sports card and collectible resale group on Discord, an instant messaging and digital distribution platform designed for creating communities. The group is limited to members, with discussions on different sports investing and analysis links to cards on eBay, and monitor pingers, which are monitors that run 24/7 on sports card web pages that send links to the discord group anytime the page refreshes with stock.

Different types of sports card packs that can be purchased inside retail stores from Target and Wal-Mart to Meijer include mega boxes, blaster boxes, hangers, cellos, fat packs and gravity packs. Each type of pack contains an exclusive type of card, such as checkerboard inserts, which can only be found in Panini Prizm gravity packs.

Mega boxes contain more cards, which means more chances for potential hits of numbered, autographed or relic cards, which are all higher valued cards. Blaster boxes contain fewer cards but also have exclusive cards. Hangers, cellos, fat packs and gravity packs also contain exclusive cards specific to their pack but also contain fewer cards.

Not available at major retailers are hobby boxes, which are very expensive boxes of sports cards that are distributed to local card shops from Panini or TOPPS. They can come with very rare cards that do not find their way to retail shelves, including numbered cards, autographs, parallels or jersey cards, which are cards that feature a patch of a player's jersey in the card.

To Dalrymple's disappointment, a total of six people are camped outside the target at 7777 E Hampden Ave in Denver, with lawn chairs and thermoses. Dalrymple and Flores struck out, and now are willing to try their luck at another Walmart.

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Six people wait outside the Target located at 7777 E Hampden Ave in Denver on April 23 at 5:25 a.m.(Photo by Steven Bonifazi)

Flores is headed to the commerce city Walmart, while Dalrymple puts the address of a Walmart situated in Quebec Square by i70 into Google Maps. Flores struck out again, as three people are lined up at the commerce city Walmart, however, no one is lined up in front of the Walmart located at 7800 Smith Rd in Denver.

Unlike Target, not all Walmart’s limit the number of boxes an individual can purchase at a time.

According to Dalrymple, Walmart’s loose rules on purchasing sports cards spark opportunities for back door opportunities, i.e. Walmart employees or vendors getting paid off to hold the product in the back for someone. He has heard of people paying up to $500.

This concern is common among card collectors and resellers.

The store opens at 7 a.m., and Dalrymple says there’s a chance there could be no stock in today.

“That’s the hard part about Walmart, even though there’s a benefit to not limiting, it always runs a higher risk of camping because you could come out with nothing," said Dalrymple. "But Target, your guaranteed some product, just not the product you want."

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Dalrymple looks inside at an employee at the Wal-Mart located at 7800 Smith Rd in Denver. (Photo by Steven Bonifazi)

However, it is not just early-morning campers and corrupt employees that collectors and sellers like Dalrympe have to compete with, as the online marketplace is even more aggressive. Some resellers have "bots" which are essentially software applications that speed up online checkout processes in order to make sure cards are purchased before selling out online.

The bots automatically run tasks, from filling out billing and shipping information to checking out. Similar bots are used to purchase sneakers and streetwear such as the brand Supreme. A seller will purchase the bot and proxy, which goes through different servers nationwide and provides the seller a different IP address so that the seller's IP address does not get banned, as stores like Target can see when a user is utilizing a bot and ban said user.

There are even monitor bots that send a seller a notification every time a card drop takes place, however, these do not fill out the information for a user.

The doors open four minutes early, and Dalrymple speeds past entrance greeters to the front end section where cards are sold. But at last, the shelves are empty, with no cards in sight. Dalrymple says this is the last time he’ll wait as this empty-handed hunt marks a month-long search for sports cards.

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An empty Wal-Mart shelf is left in disarray after card collectors and resellers clear it out. (Photo by Steven Bonifazi)


Sports cards have gradually moved from physical tangible items to non-fungible tokens (NFT), which are digital versions of sports cards, such as a digital piece of art, that are one of a kind piece of codes that are stored and secured on a community public exchange, according to CBS News. Websites such as NBA Top Shot is an NFT marketplace that sells over 7.6 million highlights or "moments" of rookies, vets and rising star players from a James Harden layup to a Lamelo Ball scoring assist.

Local sports card business, Pikes Peak Sports Card, is Colorado Springs's longest-running sports card and memorabilia show that takes place at the Radisson Hotel located at 1645 N Newport Rd from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m once a month, every month.

The most recent show took place on Saturday, with the Radisson's ballroom filling up with tables and dealers with no capacity restrictions, however, masks were still required for entry.

For retired military veteran and sports card collector and dealer, Dave Brunes, 54, these shows are a great way to meet new people and make a solid profit. Brunes started collecting and selling cards in 2017 as a hobby, three years before the marketplace rose.

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Sports card collector and dealer, Dave Brunes barters at his table with buyers at the Raddison on May 1, 2021 in Colorado Springs.(Photo by Steven Bonifazi)

Today, the hobby is at its highest point in interest, value and diversity, with e-commerce companies such as eBay controlling the accessibility and value of cards, according to Brunes.

"It’s become so popular that a retail product has three to five times the value on a second-place market like eBay. If it’s not readily available, whoever has it drives the market," said Brunes. "eBay dictates the value and that’s what everybody can agree on. People used to use Beckett magazine as the industry standard but now with eBay, it’s not what you want, it’s what it’s going for."

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Sports card collector and dealer, Dave Brunes stands at his table at the Raddison on May 1, 2021 in Colorado Springs.(Photo by Steven Bonifazi)

Nevertheless, Brunes has taken advantage of the recent rise in popularity of sports cards, selling more cards this year than he did in the past. His profit margins have risen roughly 60 to 65% over the course of the last year, as he was making nearly $1,000 at a card show and now makes roughly $2,500 on average.

Additional events are taking place soon, including a monthly card show in Castle Rock presented by House of Cards sports and TCG, a local sports card collector, trader and reseller that will start on May 15. All card enthusiasts are encouraged to attend the event to sell, buy and trade sports cards.

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